The Big Wave Project: A Band Of Brothers
One of the first jobs Tim Bonython ever had was filming the 1981 Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach when clean fifteen foot waves had the world’s best scrambling for bigger boards. It was a day that went down in surfing history, and Tim shot the action, edited it, then took the film on the road. Considering his future career, you could say the die was cast at that event.
Tim subsequently slung a camera over his shoulder and set off to film big waves. Regular stays in Hawaii led to his Hawaii Nine-0 series, some of which captured the birth of tow surfing, he was there in January 1998 when Ken Bradshaw rode what was then the largest wave at Outside Log Cabins, as well as being in the channel during Tahiti’s Code Black swell of 2011 when Nathan Fletcher recalibrated what was ridable.
There’ve been many more milestones in between but the salient point is this: Tim Bonython’s back catalogue is a remarkable archive of big wave surfing. The Big Wave Project cleverly capitalises on Tim’s library while also including a rare quality in surf movies - a storyline.
The story - which is essentially how big wave riding has evolved over the years - is told via a mix of footage and interviews. There’s no narration, the story is propelled by what the subjects say, but fortunately Tim pokes the camera at frank and forthright fellas such as Mark Healey, Greg Long, and the late Brock Little, who collectively tell the tale of how paddle surfing shifted to tow and then back again.
It’s a brave move by Tim and his producer Jason Muir, an editing room riddle to connect the thread of the story, and yet it's woven seamlessly. They even pad it out with the odd interlude to Pedra Branca, outback South Australia, and Tahiti. Hey, if you’ve got the footage...
As the story progresses a second storyline develops. Now that bigger waves are getting ridden the risk of death is increasing and it’s turned big wave surfers - who had a stereotype of semi-crazed loners - into watchful brothers. “A band of brothers,” as Jamie Mitchell describes it in one of his interviews, and it becomes the film’s tag line.
The second storyline is helped along by Tim’s johnny-on-the-spot film work. Last year he was in the channel at Cloudbreak when Aaron Gold - who just months earlier had paddled into the largest wave ever at Jaws - was hauled aboard after being held down for three waves. Tim’s camera rolls as Greg Long pumps Gold’s chest as other surfers offer frantic encouragement. Gold didn’t breathe for seven minutes yet survived. If the outcome was otherwise the footage would be off limits.
You’d excuse some melodrama at this point but Tim keeps the string orchestra at bay. There ain’t no chest beating either, Aaron Gold is a straight shooter - as are most of the surfers who appear. The two storylines wind tighter together: the bigger they go the more the surfers rely on one another.
The cinematography, save the analog historical footage, is first rate. You’d already know that if you’ve seen any of Tim’s Australian Surf Movie Festivals. And while a few of the sequences have been seen in past shows, the bulk of it has been put on ice till now. It’s been worth the wait.